If Ridley Scott stopped making movies immediately after Alien in 1979, he’d likely still be remembered as one of the great horror directors of all time. But I’m damn glad he didn’t stop there, because six years later he released a film that would forever shape my taste as a movie fan. And while his twisted fairytale Legend isn’t strictly horror, it has more than enough gorgeously spooky elements to enthrall any horror fan. Anytime it popped up on television I remember dropping everything and planting myself in front of the screen, ready to be enraptured by a world of fairies, goblins, and one of the most terrifying (yet captivating) villains ever put to screen.
Now, the seed for Legend actually predates Alien, as Scott first conceived the idea while he was filming The Duelists. The story took shape over the course of several years, with Scott reading all of the classic fairytales for inspiration, but wanting an original screenplay for the film because he felt it would be easier to shape a story that could feasibly translate to the screen than it would be to adapt the grandiose stories of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. He called on screenwriter William Hjortsberg, whose initial draft underwent as many as 15 revisions to streamline the story for a more contemporary approach.
The resulting tale is something of an amalgam of its influences, as the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) seeks to destroy the unicorns that guard the world’s light. He finds opportunity to do so through Princess Lily (Mia Sara) and forest child Jack (Tom Cruise), whose innocence he hopes will lure the unicorns into a spot where Blix (Alice Playten), his goblin lieutenant, can ambush them. While Blix is able to kill one of the stallions and take his horn, the mare escapes and charges Jack with reclaiming the horn and restoring light to the world. He teams with a group of fairies, including Gump (David Bennent), Oona (Annabelle Lanyon), Screwball (Billy Barty), and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert) to storm Darkness’ castle, while Darkness, having captured both the unicorn mare and Lily, finds himself enamored with Lily and tries to seduce her before destroying the last unicorn once and for all.
A lot of the criticism toward Legend centers on the fact that the story lacks unique personality and simply works in broad strokes, but I’ve always seen that as sort of the point. It’s something of a primer on fairytales, introducing the tropes and themes you might find in classic stories, distilling them down to their essence, and immersing you in this world.
It all starts with Assheton Gorton’s production design, as his team spent 14 weeks building huge sets that turned soundstages into beautiful landscapes whose veneer of artificiality actually bolster the film’s surreal nature. There’s something almost tactile to these sets, as if you can almost feel the snow fall in the forest or the oppressive heat and grime in the dungeons.
Then, of course, there’s Rob Bottin’s Oscar-nominated makeup work (he would have taken home a statue if he wasn’t competing against The Fly that year). When he signed on, Bottin’s first job was to talk Scott down from the purported thousands of creatures he had in mind for the film. Even cutting the work down considerably, Botting still had his work cut out for him, as every principal actor in the film other than Tom Cruise and Mia Sara required heavy makeup (including the great Robert Picardo, hiding under heavy prosthetics for his brief but oh-so-memorable stint as Meg Mucklebones).
But the most involved work, of course, was for Tim Curry, whose Darkness makeup required upwards of 5½ hours to apply, including full body prosthetics and the pièce de résistance, a pair of three-foot fiberglass horns rigged to a harness under the makeup to help keep them supported. Each day ended with Curry spending an hour submerged in a liquid concoction to dissolve the spirit gum that held his prosthetics on, and it’s said that one day in a fit of frustration Curry ripped the prosthetics off early, taking with them no small amount of skin.
Despite the hardships in the process, I can only hope that Curry ultimately found the process worthwhile, because for me, the end result is what made me fall in love not just with Legend, but with movies in general. The Lord of Darkness represents one of the most impressive visual feats in all of cinema, as Bottin’s work to create such an imposing visual figure, blended with Curry’s commanding voice and talent to keenly push the boundaries of melodrama without slipping into farce, meld to create something truly magical.
But if Curry’s Darkness is the epicenter of what makes Legend so memorable, his co-stars are no less willing to commit to the world that Scott was building. As much as I think Tom Cruise has a lot of issues to handle off screen, the dude can handle himself in front of the camera. Even here, in his younger years, he leans into some stilted dialogue that could have been a lot more awkward coming from another actor. And as he takes up with a band of fairies of various shapes and sizes, they all develop a fun rapport with some fun banter to lighten the mood a bit when needed.
It’s also refreshing that, for all of the film’s leaning into various fairytale tropes, the one it avoids is the classic damsel in distress narrative. After all, Lily is only captured by Darkness because she makes the decision to try and protect the unicorn mare after she realizes her unwitting role in the death of the stallion. And in her interactions with Darkness, Mia Sara brings a fantastic blend of vulnerability and darkness to the character that shows, despite the film’s initial dichotomy, that good and evil aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather aspects that live within each of us. Or, as Darkness says, “I am a part of you all.”
I suppose the irony of my love for Legend is that much of what endears me to it stems from Scott’s lack of confidence in American audiences to appreciate nuance or subtlety. While his initial cut for the film came in at 125 minutes, he edited it down to 95 minutes for release in Great Britain. But then he made a couple more adjustments before sending it across the Atlantic. First, he shaved off an additional six minutes for us broad Americans. Second, he replaced Jerry Goldsmith’s original score with a new one from German techno-pop band Tangerine Dream along with two new songs from Yes’ Jon Anderson and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry.
And for me, that soundtrack is at the core of Legend’s charm, as it’s emblematic of the movie as a whole. This is a grand, bombastic fairy tale told with a 1980s aesthetic. Perhaps there’s an element of commercialization and even a bit of condescension on Scott’s part regarding American audiences, but frankly I just don’t care. I wouldn’t have this movie any other way. I love that it dismisses subtle narrative for a more sensational experience. I love that it paints in broad strokes while still introducing compelling themes. I love that everything about it is over the top, and that every time I watch it, I want to belt out Jon Anderson’s lyrics at the top of my lungs. It’s truly one of my first true cinematic loves, and it will always have a special place in my big, black heart.